American Society of Naturalists

A membership society whose goal is to advance and to diffuse knowledge of organic evolution and other broad biological principles so as to enhance the conceptual unification of the biological sciences.

Sewall Wright Award 2021

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Susan C. Alberts

The Sewall Wright Award, established in 1991 and now in its 30th year, is given annually to honor relatively senior but still active investigators who are making fundamental contributions to the Society's goals, namely promoting the conceptual unification of the biological sciences.

The 2020 Sewall Wright Award recognizes Susan C. Alberts, currently the Robert F. Durden Professor in the Departments of Biology and Evolutionary Anthropology, Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Susan is a lifetime member of the American Society of Naturalists, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Animal Behavior Society, and the Bass Society of Duke University, and has received several other awards in recognition of her work. She will be the President of the Animal Behavior Society for the next four years.

Particularly noteworthy are discoveries by Susan and colleagues at the interface of animal behavior, evolutionary biology, and anthropology, uncovering links between social behaviors (dominance, mating systems, group identity, kin recognition), genetic relatedness and lifetime reproductive success. Most of Susan’s studies have been on baboons and elephants, conducted with the Amboseli Baboon Research Project in Kenya. Her work features longitudinal empirical data gathered over decades of painstaking fieldwork, measuring behaviors and reproduction of known individuals across their lifespans in the same populations experiencing long-term demographic and environmental changes. Most of the data are available online in the BABASE archive that Susan helps to curate. These kinds of studies are rare indeed, and result in a rich unifying blend of data, methods, and theory that cannot be adequately described in a few short paragraphs. Three areas stand out.

The molecular ecology and genetics of behavior: Susan helped pioneer the application of molecular genetic data in studies of behavioral ecology. Susan co-led some of the first studies demonstrating that male mating behavior predicted genetic paternity in wild primates. For instance, despite female baboons mating with multiple males, the males participate in paternal care (e.g., recognize their offspring and intervene on their behalf during conflicts), paternal relatives recognize each other and avoid inbreeding, and female offspring mature more quickly when fathers are present and attentive.

Fitness consequences of female social relationships: With the expectation that forming strong and stable social bonds in mammals should increase fitness, Susan’s 2003 Science paper co-authored with Joan Silk and Jeanne Altmann provided some of the first direct empirical evidence for this idea. Using 15 years of data describing female baboons’ sociality they showed that those with the strongest social bonds with adults of both sexes had the highest longevity and offspring survival. Subsequent studies revealed persistence and reciprocity of female-female bonds - a basic assumption underlying theoretical explanations for altruism that has rarely been confirmed in wild social mammals. Susan's pioneering work in this area inspires others to follow in her footsteps in understanding how sociality contributes to fitness, especially through lifespan.

Comparative primate life histories: More recently Susan has directed research toward understanding patterns of aging in primates, working in collaboration with the Primate Life History Database working group. The studies again harness the power of long term field studies of primates, including humans. First, Susan led work showing that patterns of aging, particularly that males age faster and have shorter lifespans, appear in all three major primate lineages. By contrast, human women appear to be unique among primates by undergoing early reproductive senescence (i.e., menopause). However—again elegantly showcasing the value of longitudinal studies— when lifespans with lower variability are also longer in both humans and other primates, suggesting that patterns of aging in humans have deep evolutionary roots. This study won the 2016 Cozzarelli Prize from the National Academy of Sciences for behavioral and social sciences.

Susan is a highly productive and innovative scientist, co-publishing with many collaborators. She is also a generous and kind mentor to her own graduate student and post-doctoral trainees and to the many researchers working at Amboseli. She has been recognized as an effective teacher. Susan continues to have an outsized effect on the fields of animal behavior and evolutionary anthropology, setting the agenda for some of the most exciting conceptual and empirical work on the evolution of social behavior and life histories.

Michael F. Antolin, Chair, on behalf of the Sewall Wright Award Committee: Ellen Ketterson, Mark Urban